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Off-the-radar: Osasuna and Iran, an unlikely connection

Sarthak Kumar talks about the Iranians who moved to Osasuna and their impact on Spanish football.

Jasper Juinen/Getty Images
A solitary point in three games didn't tell the whole story - they should've scored more when they lost 3-1 to Mexico, they held Portugal to 0-0 for large parts of the game before capitulating by two goals, and they really should've won against Angola but had to settle for an undeserved 1-1 draw.

Iran had just bowed out of the 2006 World Cup with their heads held high. And their no. 6 was the name on everyone's lips.

The epitome of a one-touch playmaker, Javad Nekounam was free to select from a variety of European clubs.

After his performance at the 2006 World Cup, Javad Nekounam was linked to the likes of Hertha BSC of the Bundesliga and Ligue 1's Olympique Lyonnais, And it wasn't the only time he had been recognised - he had been linked to 1. FC Kaiserslautern and Tottenham Hotspur six months earlier before joining Al-Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. Widely expected to join the Bundesliga's growing Iranian contingent, he shocked many when he eventually joined CA Osasuna on a two-year contract, with a €5 million release fee on his contract - becoming the first Iranian player to be signed by a Spanish club.

His stock only grew from there - On 22nd February 2007, he scored in the 120th minute of the match against FC Girondins de Bordeaux in the knockout stages of the UEFA Cup to help to a 1–0 home win and aggregate score. His first season was so successful that Scotland's Rangers had a £1 million pound offer publicly rejected.

On 22 March 2009, Nekounam netted a last-minute goal against RCD Espanyol for a 1–0 home win, and finished the season as Osasuna's second goalscorer behind Walter Pandiani, scoring nine times in the league (a career-best in Spain). In the 2009 summer he received offers from both Espanyol and Villarreal, with the latter in particular being ready to pay the buy-out clause in Nekounam's contract; however, the player repeatedly insisted on staying.

Nekounam was again a regular starter for Osasuna in the 2010–11 campaign. On 20 February 2011, in the second game upon his return from Qatar, he scored twice in a 4–0 home win against Espanyol, and eventually finished the campaign with six goals in 26 appearances as his team again avoided relegation.

In July 2012 of the following year, amidst interest from Iranian powerhouse Esteghlal F.C. and unnamed Turkish and Qatari clubs, it was reported that he would only remain with the Rojillos if he accepted a salary reduction - he was the highest-paid player. He ended up leaving for Esteghal.

But that wasn't it - he would end up returning to freshly-relegated Osasuna for the 2014-15 season, helping them narrowly escape a second consecutive relegation.

For the 2014-15 season there was another Iranian joining Javad at Osasuna. Striker Karim Ansarifard came in from Tractor Sazi for a solitary season before leaving for Greece.

That was Javed's second stint - during his first stint a sense of déjà vu hit fans - another Iranian player was joining from Al Sharjah.

On 23 June 2008, after previous attempts from VfL Wolfsburg in Germany and Italy's S.S.C. Napoli, Masoud Shojaei - who could play as a winger and as a striker - signed with the Spanish side for three years,

During his first two seasons he appeared almost always as a substitute, as the Navarrese managed to maintain its division status; the player remained a regular even after the coaching change at the club, as José Ángel Ziganda was replaced by José Antonio Camacho.

Shojaei appeared regularly again for Osasuna in the 2010–11 campaign, but spent the entire 2011–12 on the sidelines, due to injury. On 25 February 2013, in only his fourth appearance since returning, he scored a stunning goal to help Osasuna win it 2–0 at Levante UD.

Despite a solid start to his spell, Shojaei was eventually released in June 2013. Shortly after, he was linked with a move to fellow league club Real Valladolid, but nothing came of it and he joined Segunda outfit Las Palmas for a year, before moving to Al-Shahania in Qatar. He now plays in Greece.

Only three Iranians have ever played in Spain's top three divisions - and all three signed for Osasuna first. With varying degrees of success, generalizations about how future Iranians will fare in Spain are premature.

But one thing is for sure - the floodgates have opened, and the doors have opened for foreigners to make their mark in Spain.

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